WE Charity registers to lobby federal government, discloses dozens of interactions with officials

WE Charity has registered to lobby the federal government and retroactively disclosed dozens of interactions between its employees and federal officials over the past several months.

WE employees communicated with public office holders 38 times since March, according to lobbying registry

A crowd is shown before the We Day red carpet in Toronto in 2018. The WE Charity is now registered to lobby the federal government. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

WE Charity has registered to lobby the federal government and retroactively disclosed dozens of previous interactions between its employees and federal officials over the past several months.

Dalal Al-Waheidi, WE Charity's executive director, told MPs on the House of Commons finance committee the organization had submitted the paperwork to enter the Registry of Lobbyists on Thursday, the same day as her testimony.

The disclosure comes months after WE Charity began discussions with federal officials on how to help young Canadians during the coronavirus pandemic. Those contacts culminated in a now-cancelled agreement to administer a $900-million student grant program that is now the subject of several Parliamentary investigations and has embroiled the charity and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's minority government in controversy.

WE Charity filed a total of 65 communication reports with the registry, including 38 monthly communication reports in the past six months. The reports refer to any oral or other arranged communication with a public office holder, which can be a minister, political staffer or bureaucrat.

The reports mark the date of the communication, which public office holders were involved and the subject matter of the conversation.

Between March 25 and July 5, representatives of WE had 23 registered communications with Rachel Wernick, an assistant deputy minister at Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC). Wernick is credited with recommending to cabinet that WE administer the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG).

WE Charity was chosen to administer the program via a foundation but backed out after a public outcry over the sole-sourced nature of the deal and after close ties between the families of Trudeau, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and the organization came to light.

WE's communications include two previously-reported phone calls between co-founder Craig Kielburger and federal cabinet ministers— one with Small Business Minister Mary Ng on April 7 and the second with Youth Minister Bardish Chagger on April 17. Both conversations focused on a separate WE Charity proposal for a social entrepreneurship program.

WE has also registered to lobby 19 federal government ministries and departments, including the Prime Minister's Office, the Privy Council Office, Finance Canada and ESDC.

WE in the hot seat

WE has come under intense scrutiny from opposition MPs, who have questioned why the charity hadn't registered to lobby despite repeated communications with federal officials.

The federal Lobbying Act requires organizations and corporations to register when the combined lobbying activities of all employees amounts to 20 per cent or more of the work of a single full-time employee over a period 30 days.

"For the past years, our engagement with the government was about one to three per cent of our overall budget and engagement," Al-Waheidi told MPs. "We thought it was minimal. If I thought that registration was required, we would have done it."

WE Charity co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger, who appeared before the finance committee two weeks ago, told MPs the organization had not registered previously because it had "very limited engagement with the federal government seeking funds."

WE Charity's former director of government and stakeholder relations, Sofia Marquez, also appeared before the finance committee Thursday and provided additional details about her interactions with federal officials throughout the development and rollout of the CSSG.

Marquez said she participated in the April 17 phone call between Craig Kielburger and Chagger, in which they discussed a WE Charity proposal for a social entrepreneurship program that was eventually turned down by the government.

Marquez said she was also involved in developing the proposal for the program that would become the CSSG, which WE Charity submitted on April 21 to the offices of Chagger, Ng, as well as officials at ESDC and the finance department.

She also said she had a 30-minute phone call with Rick Theis, the director of policy in the PMO, where they discussed progress on the proposal.

Marquez said she didn't register as a lobbyist, despite the fact that engaging with political staffers and bureaucrats about funding opportunities with government was part of her job.

"I understood that I was not the person responsible for the compliance of the act at WE Charity," said Marquez.

Marquez said she didn't keep a detailed track record of the hours she spent working on tasks related to the federal government.

Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion is investigating Trudeau and Morneau for possible violations of the Conflict of Interest Act. Both Trudeau and Morneau have apologized for not recusing themselves from the cabinet decision to approve WE for the program.